What’s in a Name? How the Lac La Croix Indian Pony Got its Name

The Ojibwe Horse goes by several other names, chiefly The Lac La Croix Indian (or Indigenous) Pony (or Horse). All these terms refer to the same breed of horse which traditionally lived alongside First Nations of the North American boreal forest. While the Society chooses to centre the name Ojibwe Horse in recognition of the traditional range of these horses, we recognize and honour the special role that Lac La Croix First Nation has played in the very existence of the breed. In fact, every horse registered with the Society begins with the letters LLC.

Tragically, the link between Indigenous people and their horse was nearly broken. The last of the breed were mistakenly thought to be merely a bunch of "feral bush ponies" rather than a distinct Indigenous heritage breed, and were nearly exterminated. Walter McElderry was a witness to the rescue of the last four remaining horses at Lac La Croix. He shares this account of those extraordinary events and the naming of the breed (originally from the Society's Spring 2003 newsletter).

A Fitting Tribute

Walter McElderry

I was recently contacted by Jill Marshall regarding the proposed name change for the LLCIP. Jill was wondering how I felt about it and suggested that I contact you. I suppose that in a way it is none of my business since I no longer own any ponies. In another sense they are now a part of my own history and I sometimes awaken from dreams of black ponies in the forest. I am with my eldest son and it is bitter cold with deep snow. I feel the heat from the back of Keokuk and it is the only part of me that is warm. My feet are going numb inside mukluks, yet it is perfect. I would return to that night in a heartbeat. The forest is silent and moonlit. My son is riding the black mare Muckadewaazin (black one, or ‘blackie’ although commonly called Midnight). The slow walk through the forest is timeless, a kind of shuffling communion with past time when there were no cars or fences or imaginary lines designating Canada and the United States….it was all Turtle Island and is was all Indian Country. This is the stuff dreams are made of. I awaken saddened, feeling a moment of loss and wondering where my friend Keokuk is now. I send him a blessing of thankfulness and good wishes. Perhaps he sometimes dreams of me as well. Forgive the wondering thoughts of an old man.

If there is unhappiness over the name of these fine little horses then I am the one to blame. Take it out on me if you wish, although I hope it is too late for any do-gooders to change it to something more acceptable, whatever that might be. I’m sure the ponies don’t’ care. My friend Bob Walker and I discussed the matter when there was first talk about sending some of the ponies over the border to Canada. He asked me what I thought and I told him that we were already calling them Lac La Croix Indian Ponies and had been for some time. Years before, when I first wrote about them for a local paper and later for the Boundary Waters Journal, that’s what I called them and it was for a reason. I wanted to not only designate where the final drama of saving these animals from extinction occurred, but also to honour their heritage and the people who were most directly responsible for saving them.

Lac La Croix is a relatively large border lake and is the home of one village of the Boise Forte Band of Ojibwe. The village was located on the Canadian side of the lake. The other two villages of the Boise Forte are at Nett Lake and at Lake Vermillion, both reservations on the U.S. side of the border. There may be three locations, but they are all one people, inter-related. At the time I lived near Lake Vermillion and counted among my friends some of the people there. To the northeast is Nett Lake where Fred Isham lived and near Pelican Lake where Walter Saatala had his farm. These two men were the central figures in saving the ponies. Fred had relatives at Lac La Croix and became aware that the Canadian Government (whatever your health department calls itself) had decided that the ponies were some sort of health risk to the village and should be put away. Village elders did not want to see this happen, but were powerless to stop this from happening. The only answer appeared to be spiriting them across the border into north eastern Minnesota. Fred contacted Walter Saatala who was a friend and fellow horseman. Walter had the acreage needed for a home and the savvy to make the necessary arrangements. The village of La Croix had no road access, so the only possible way to get them over the border was to wait for winter in order to haul them out by truck over the ice. A former rodeo man from Embarras, Minnesota joined Fred and Walter. I believe his name was Omar, but I can’t recall if that was the first name or the last. [editor’s note—Omar Hilde] He was to do the roping as the mares were semi-wild, having lived in the forest near the village on their own for some years. Fred told me that it took a number of people from the village helping and a number of tries before the mares were caught and successfully loaded into the horse trailer.

Some years later after the herd was well established and I had purchased my first ponies from Walter he told me that the first year was dicey for the mares. He said that one of the mares “prit near starved ta death”, as she seemed unable to digest the baled hay and oats given her. According to Fred Isham the pones had been living on mostly wild grasses near the lake, browsing tender buds and twigs much like deer and by stripping bark off the poplar trees. Years back before the advent of snowmobiles the people used them to pull toboggans to haul loads of wood and to run the trap lines. At that time they were fed dried but unhusked wild rice as grain and did very well on that feed. At any rate, Walter’s old mare took some time to develop the digestive bacteria to be able to handle her new feed. Through the years Walter became my friend and horse mentor. I made arrangements to meet Fred Isham at the Nett Lake Reservation as I wanted to learn more and to personally thank him for the part he played in saving the breed. Through articles in the local paper I tried to stimulate interest in the ponies, with some degree of success.

So, a lot happened before any horses returned to the Canadian side of the border and their history was not just on the Canadian side. They may well be genetically related to the Canadian Horse, but they also had a long history with the Indian people of north eastern Minnesota. Fred told me that as far back as his people were concerned the ponies had always been there with the people, at least as far back as memory and oral tradition tell the story. There were ponies at Vermillion (put away by missionary people in the 1930’s) and at Nett Lake by school and religious authorities in the 1950’s (horses breeding before the eyes of curious village children were considered a moral dilemma by the white authorities, solved by killing the ponies). Fred told me that there had been a good number of wild ponies near Silver Lake in the same region which were shot and harvested to sell as dogfood by white men. Fred said that in time the ponies disappeared from north eastern Minnesota. So, the ponies were our heritage as well. Their close encounter with extinction was due to idiots on both sides of the border.

The name designation was meant to honour Fred Isham’s people and to mark forever the place where the last mares were living. To me the name is descriptive and appropriate. Both Fred Isham and Walter Saatala are now gone to the other side. Fred was killed in an automobile accident and Walter died in the Cook, Minnesota Nursing Home a few years ago. I honour their memory and thank them both for their conservation efforts. There were both just simple men, one an old Indian and the other an old Finnish horse logger. Because they cared we still have the breed. They loved the ponies and I know they both approved of the name, Lac La Croix Indian Pony … and that’s good enough for me.

Ahao, Walter